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Dealing with the grammar police

(And why they have nothing to do with editing.)

Whether you’re a writer or an editor, putting yourself and your writing in front of readers is often a vulnerable and public act. You may write an author or editorial blog. You may share snippets of your work (first lines, query letters, synopses, a paragraph here or there, etc.) in various public forums (yes, even “private” Facebook groups are public in some way).

You may share your work for the purpose of receiving feedback, including grammar-related feedback. Most groups have structured protocols for sharing your work and receiving feedback to keep the group tidy and to keep feedback constructive. But protocols are no guarantee you’ll receive helpful feedback every time.

The grammar police are usually around and waiting for an opportunity to pounce on a misspelling or lecture about a perceived syntax error even if their feedback wasn’t requested. Worse, perhaps you weren’t requesting any feedback at all!

We’ve all dealt with the grammar police at one time or another. And if you’re a writer, you may have seen the grammar police in action and wondered, Are they editors? Are all editors and proofreaders like that? Perhaps you’ve had such a negative experience that you’re worried about putting your writing into the hands of an editor who may potentially tear your work apart.

How to recognize the grammar police

The grammar police are, primarily, those who enjoy calling out grammatical, word, or language use errors, typos, and mistakes, in a way that is obvious and public.

In the techy world we live in, this usually means that the grammar police’s domain of choice is social media. Some platforms are worse than others, but grammar police are, by and large, anywhere you go on the internet.

Their way of engaging with written work is surface level, and they want nothing more than to find your typos and shout about them in a comment for all to see. While I can’t say why the grammar police feel the need to do this (I’m an editor, not a psychologist), I do know that this sort of behavior is generally frowned upon, and I think we can agree it is simply plain rude (especially when done publicly).

The grammar police may think they are engaging appropriately with the author’s work; they may even believe they are being helpful. Seen from the outside, however, this behavior only embarrasses and belittles.

How the grammar police differ from an editor or proofreader

Editors, good editors, are not grammar police. This is not to say that editors and proofreaders don’t ever engage in grammar police-like behavior. Editors have a great desire to help writers improve their stories, and ideally, they do this through the careful development of respect and rapport. Once a relationship is established, editors may feel freer to offer more pointed suggestions to their client-authors, but these suggestions are always that—suggestions!

So much of writing is about context. A blog post is not a social media post which is not a book. A tweet is not a Facebook comment which is not web copy. While editors may use style guides to literally guide their editorial decisions, those decisions are also based on context—what they are editing, who has written it, who it is written for, and what preferences for editing the author may have.

There is no one right way to edit, and while there may be grammar rules that are less flexible than others, I can’t think of a single rule that may not be bent (especially in fiction) given the right context. Anyone who says there are hard and fast rules of grammar that must be followed no matter what is simply placing unrealistic expectations on everyone and every piece of writing they encounter.

Editors and writers are people. People make mistakes even in the best of circumstances when they’ve tried their hardest not to make a mistake. Grammar police fail to see the humanity in the others they interact with and the consequences of their one-dimensional understanding of language use.

How to respond to grammar police

It may be tempting to become defensive in the face of an assault by the grammar police. Maybe your embarrassment causes you to think about deleting whatever you’ve shared. You may even have a snarky comeback prepared: “C’mon, give me a break!” (Gosh, haven’t we all wanted to say that to the grammar police? Seriously, lighten up!)

But here’s the key: don’t engage.

Just pass up the comment. Don’t draw attention to it. Don’t respond. Don’t like it. And certainly don’t take down what you’ve written! You have a right to share and take up a bit of carpet in the writing space. Don’t let the grammar police run you off.

When we don’t engage with the grammar police and their comments and we continue more meaningful discussion with others, then the social media algorithms reward us. They draw attention to the more meaningful and helpful comments and discussion and let those ignored engagements fall by the wayside.

Besides, nothing good will come from the engagement. Think about all the time wasted as you react, think up a pithy response, type it all out, dither about posting it, finally post it (or not), and then spend another hour reading and responding again and again. It’s a pit you don’t want to fall into!

What to do if you feel the urge to be one of the grammar police

Anyone can be part of the grammar police at any time. Maybe we’re all a bit more guilty of it than we realize. So what if you’re reading a blog post or someone’s website or a social media post and you see a typo? Maybe they’ve got a missing or double-typed letter. Maybe they’ve left off ending punctuation.

Well, this is where context comes back into play. Ask yourself:

  • Will this content be seen by many people, not just now but in the future as well? Is this content pivotal to the writer’s web presence and credibility (not all of it is!)?

  • Is the content fairly “permanent” (a blog post that sticks around forever is very different from a social media post that disappears into the ether)?

  • Do I have a way of alerting the writer to the mistake in a way that is private?

  • Can I deliver the information about the typo in a way that is collegial and supportive (for instance, can you comment positively on some other aspect of what was written)?

If you can answer “yes” to most of these criteria, especially the last two, then it may be OK to reach out. But if you can’t, then there may be no harm in letting it go and moving on to something else worth more of your time and editorial efforts.

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